The Miliband-Blair war of words is a preview of bigger battles to come

If Labour unity has largely held since the election it is because Miliband has chosen to postpone almost all policy decisions.

Tony Blair's dramatic intervention in the centenary edition of the New Statesman (180 pages, out now) leads several of today's papers (the Independent and the Times have splashed on it), with some of the former prime minister's key allies taking the opportunity to air their own concerns about the party's direction under Ed Miliband. The increasingly outspoken Peter Mandelson tells the Independent: "Tony is saying what he has always thought – that the old dividing lines between the uncaring Conservative cuts and Labour spending has got to be redrawn for new times.

"I suspect the two Eds realise this. Their call for One Nation is the right starting point, but there are major structural challenges and choices facing Britain and Labour must consider the difficult changes and reforms needed to address them."

Alan Milburn, Blair's former health secretary, adds: "The closer the election comes, people will stop asking Labour what it is against. They will want to know what Labour is for and what, if elected, it would do. Tony Blair is right to argue that the sooner that process begins in earnest, the better."

One suspects that Miliband, who wasted no time in shrugging off Blair's warning not to "tack left on tax and spending", will be unfazed by their words. Both Mandelson and Milburn are no longer MPs, of course, and have little sway over today's Parliamentary Labour Party. But Blair's intervention and the response to it offers a preview of bigger battles to come. It's often said that Labour is more united now than at any point in recent history but this ignores the fact that there's been little to be disunited about.

Miliband's "blank sheet of paper" is gradually being filled but the Labour leader has chosen to postpone almost all policy decisions until 2014-15. Even when he proposes a new measure such as the reinstatement of the 10p tax rate, or the introduction of a "mansion tax", Miliband is careful to emphasise that these are examples of what Labour would be doing were it in power now, not manifesto commitments. The same applies to the party's five point plan for jobs and growth, the 50p tax rate, benefits uprating and just about every policy area Miliband has touched on since becoming leader.

But at some point before the election, he will need to decide where he really stands. Will Labour, for instance, pledge to stick to the coalition's spending limits for the early years of the new parliament (as Labour did with the Tories' in 1997) our outline its own alternative plan? What will the balance of tax rises to spending cuts be? Will he propose cuts to the welfare budget or allow the burden to fall entirely on public services? Will he pledge to keep Michael Gove's "free schools"? How far will he go in reversing the coalition's NHS reforms? Will he retain the £26,000 benefit cap? 

Liberated from office, Blair enjoys the luxury of posing questions without answering them (although NS editor Jason Cowley has a go in today's Times) but Miliband does not. And once he begins to set out his stall, Labour unity could quickly begin to fray. Recall the tumult that followed Ed Balls's declaration of support for the public sector pay freeze and Labour's decision to abstain on the workfare bill (a move that prompted a rebellion by 44 backbenchers). As one Labour MP recently told me, a pledge to make further cuts to public spending (as the party will surely do) would make such rows "look like a tea party". For this reason, among others, David Cameron and George Osborne will continue to appear unreasonably cheerful. Most of their tough decisions are behind them; Labour’s are all still to come.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.